Senate Immigration Bill Approved by SJC Contains Key Elements for HRI’s Clients

Article and analysis by Katie Klein, HRI Legal Intern

After five days of debate and markup on 300 Amendments, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved sending S.744, the Immigration Reform Bill, to the Senate floor for consideration after the Memorial Day Weekend recess. The Committee, lead by Chairman Patrick Leahy, voted 13-5 with all ten Democratic members and three Republic members voting to approve the 800-plus page bill. The final Committee version is being strongly praised for remaining true to the core principles of immigration reform. The Committee rejected controversial proposals from both parties including an amendment offered by Senator Cruz that would have removed the proposed pathway to citizenship. Senator Leahy withdrew his amendment to include same-sex couples within the immigration reform bill, based on a calculation that such an amendment could prevent the bill from passing.

Overall the Committee markup was considered a very successful first step for producing comprehensive immigration reform, with the Committee passing by voice vote several proposals designed to increase protections for vulnerable individuals. Successful amendments included one offered by Senator Coons that will ensure asylum applicants receive work authorization within 180 days, and one by Senator Leahy that will provide work authorization for U and T visa applicants whose applications are pending. Additionally, the Committee approved an amendment by Senator Hirono that introduces new regulations to protect unaccompanied minor children and female detainees, as well as Senator Franken’s amendment that increases protections for immigrant children whose parents are detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The final committee version included amendments by Senator Klobuchar that will broaden the category of eligible applications for VAWA relief to include spouses of temporary visa holders and add elder abuse to the U-visa eligible crime list. Finally, the Committee passed Senator Franken’s amendment that will allow battered immigrants to qualify for certain public and housing assistance programs and Senator Feistein’s amendment creating a pilot program to combat child trafficking.

The Committee markup also included amendments aimed at increasing national security that will impact asylum-seekers. For example, an amendments introduced by Senator Graham will require termination of status of someone granted asylum if that person returns to his or her country of origin.

If the Senate’s immigration bill becomes law, this will represent the first significant overhaul of the immigration system since 1986 and create a path to citizenship for approximately 11 million individuals. Commenting on the success of the Senate Committee, President Obama endorsed the bill as being “largely consistent with his own principles” and Majority Leader Harry Reid officially stated that he planned to bring the bill to the floor in early June. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell announced that he would not block the bill from reaching the floor for debate despite mounting conservative opposition. The authors of the bill have emphasized publically that they believe they will be successful in securing enough bi-partisan support to pass the bill with a clear majority and send a strong message demonstrating the political importance of passing immigration reform in this session.

Responding to the success of the Senate immigration bill, Speaker John Boehner announced last Thursday that the House intended to produce its own version of the bill rather than accepting for debate the Senate’s final version. Speaker Boehner’s statement coincided with breaking news that the House leadership reached a tentative agreement ending a four year negotiation period between the parties. The issue of access to government funded healthcare, a major barrier between the parties that had caused several Democratic members to draw back from the negotiations earlier in May, has been resolved to the satisfaction of the work group members. While refusing to provide any details, the work group indicated their intention to have a bill for the House Judiciary Committee in the next couple of weeks. Thus, in the past week Congress has made significant progress towards comprehensive immigration reform, and the public will be waiting to see how the House bill compares to the Senate bill .

HRI appreciates the efforts of the Senate Judiciary Committee in protecting immigrant children, asylum-seekers, survivors of domestic abuse and victims of violence as part of comprehensive immigration reform.  We will keep you posted as the Senate and House bills progress through the legislative process.

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